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Understanding Tyler Perry, the Phenomenon April 12, 2010

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Posted at Visual Inquiry, the research blog for visual studies at the Annenberg School at Penn. Many thanks to Mark Anthony Neal for linking to this post.

Watching a Tyler Perry movie is a strange and ecstatic experience. Perry’s desire for shenanigans, inanity and heightened emotions always makes for an entertaining evening. But his films are in a strange in-between space: between melodrama and traditional drama, between alternative cinema and Hollywood style, and between black authenticity and pure elitism. Through it all, what vexes film scholars, especially critics, is how style, content, auteurism and culture clash and miss each other in Tyler Perry’s films. Understanding Perry now is crucial, especially as he embarks into new cinematic territory, most notably in next year’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

Are Tyler Perry’s movies “bad,” and, whether yes or no, why should we care?

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That Was Fast: Web Series Remix “How to Make It In America” March 25, 2010

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Also filed under: “Things that make me feel old at the age of 25.” How quickly can one create a series riffing off a new HBO show? In a few weeks, apparently.

Smoke DZA, a rapper I’ve never heard of — excuse! This is a film and TV blog! I don’t do music — has crafted a web series called How to Make It in Harlem. Judging from the trailer, which I found thanks to The Rah Rah, it’s basing its concept heavily on HBO’s How to Make It in America. There’s a bit of inevitability to an independent artist taking HBO’s faux-grit and filming in an actually gritty part of town, Harlem (sort of; let’s be real, Neil Patrick Harris lives there).

The trailer’s a pretty faithful remix of the HBO show’s opening credits; same large white fonts, snapshot photo technique. Take a look:

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An Actor Turns Entrepreneur: Al Thompson Sells His Web Series to Atom March 24, 2010

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Originally published on the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog

Al Thompson got his big break from an unlikely production: a New York University student short film called “3D” that screened at Sundance 10 years ago. Hollywood came calling, auditions were scheduled and he spent weeks crashing in Los Angeles with actor friends. Thompson took this couch-hopping experience and wrote a Web series, “Johnny B. Homeless,” which generated buzz at last year’s New York Television Festival, winning the People’s Choice Award.

The show’s critical success drew interest from Viacom and Comedy Central’s Atom.com, which this week announced that it had bought the nine-episode first season and committed to a second season. “Johnny B. Homeless” will also air on “Atom TV,” Comedy Central’s half-hour late night series. The first episode is planned for a May release.

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YouTube’s Black Stars: A Look Back (and Ahead) January 25, 2010

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Over a year ago I conducted a little more than a dozen interviews with black vloggers on YouTube. While I never submitted the paper (draft version here) to an academic publication, I did use some of the interviews for an article on The Root. That article focused on the more popular vloggers, but recently I’ve been wondering what happened to the rest of the people I interviewed. Have they grown their audiences? Are they making money?

YouTube remains a mixed bag for minority vloggers, though I tend to air on the side of optimism. Several personalities have achieved stable and even growing audiences, as you’ll see below!

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“Orlando’s Joint:” Urban, Stoned And Running A Business December 11, 2009

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Originally published at Ronebreak!

There’s a long history of “urban” and black cartoons in the U.S., most of which I don’t know, so I won’t get into it. Needless to say, the lo-fi web series Orlando’s Joint, about a young man who inherits a second-rate coffee shop, is an interesting contribution to a genre dominated now by Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks. Orlando’s Joint — as in a shop, but also, you know, that other kind of joint — is a comedic series that explores running a local urban business, growing up and being not-so-rich in contemporary Los Angeles. Oh yes, it’s also pretty funny.

Orlando Reed, our protagonist, is a “stoner” (something of a slacker), but he inherits an coffee shop — that isn’t Starbucks — and clearly intends to reinvigorate it with the help of two friends a few kooky characters.  The series creator Terence Anthony said in the interview below he wanted to buck stereotypes and be a bit provocative.

I noticed some interesting links between this series and other independents I’ve encountered. One is an interesting coincidence: both Anthony and Chris Wiltz (from yesterday’s post about Semi-Dead) are alums of Bill Cosby’s film fellowships! Another has become predictable: in order to produce a completely no-budget series you need good friends and, most importantly, passion (passion breeds passion). No surprise there. The last thing I hear often is a general disenchantment with the TV industry; that’s from nearly every producer, no matter how successful they were in the biz.

I spoke with Anthony about the show, being independent and what it means to make a black web series today.

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Beyond “Black Hulu:” Rowdy Orbit’s Ambitious Bid To Build A Web Series Market December 7, 2009

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After 90 episodes of about a dozen web shows published less than three months into its beta launch, Rowdy Orbit founder Jonathan Moore claims this is only the beginning. The site plans to launch six to ten webisodes in the next two weeks, and hopes to be going at a rate of 12 to 15 new shows a month in 2010 — plans I teased in my earlier post, “Black Hulu: Creating a Home for Independent Online Video.”

Needless to say, that’s a lot of shows by and about people of color! Are there even enough series out there to support this kind of development? (more…)

“Drama Queenz” Returns With A Fierceness (And A Few Guest Stars!) November 29, 2009

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The vast majority of original, independent web series never make it to season two. Producing season one takes so much time and money, when the millions of viewers never materialize, creators can’t bring themselves to invest more precious time and money. (At this point, I’d almost prefer most market themselves as “miniseries until proven otherwise”!)

Drama Queenz, a show about three black gay men trying to make it in New York’s theatre world, and its creator Dane Joseph then deserve a huge pat on the back. It’s a Herculean effort.

Remarkably, Joseph edited and marketed the first season while in graduate school at Columbia University, then shot season two, which comes out today. Now that, as they say in theatre, is gumption!

What’s more, the second season promises lots of hijinks, along with guest appearances  from some of my favorite YouTube personalities!

(more…)

“Kindred,” A Spirited Web Series On A Mission November 29, 2009

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Living Single and Girlfriends exist today in nostalgia, firmly in the annals of television history but only occasionally as a rerun on a niche network.

Who are their children? Certainly cable networks have tried to pick up the torch by giving Jada Pinkett Smith, Jill Scott and Sherri Shepherd their own shows, each of which (HawthoRNe, No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and Sherri) have had varying levels of success, most of it good.

But television currently lacks a show by and for “sistas.” Enter SistaPAC productions. The five-year old independent production company, having explored theatre and short film, has released what may be their most ambitious effort yet, a web series: Kindred.

(more…)

“Buppies” Review: Drama With A Light Touch November 21, 2009

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Check out other reviews at Thembi Ford, Shadow and Act. Thank you to Racialicious for reposting this!

I’ve written and spoken a lot about Buppies for this blog and elsewhere, but that’s only because I think it’s a significant development within the history of original web shows.

Buppies is upon us; the BET-distributed, CoverGirl-sponsored scripted web series premieres this Tuesday, Nov. 24th (Hopefully. BET has already pushed back the premiere once to expand its marketing).

The show is a “mad-cap romp” through a day in the life of Quinci, played by Fresh Prince‘s Tatyana Ali, a socialite and publicist enduring lots of drama amidst L.A.’s black upper crust. During this very bad day, she and her friends face issues of sexuality, pregnancy, dating, race, and careers and, most importantly, handle them in fabulous clothes! (more…)

New York Times, Myself on “Precious” November 21, 2009

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The New York Times has a great little article out on the debate  over Precious, over whether or not it’s a responsible representation of black people. Felicia Lee asked for my opinion, based on an essay written for this blog:

Aymar Jean Christian, a doctoral student in communications at the University of Pennsylvania said he found “Precious” brilliant and added, “In some ways, the debate’s not about the movie, it’s about the idea of the movie,” and black concerns about representation.

On his blog, Televisual (at blog.ajchristian.org), he wrote that Precious was “by far the scariest movie for anyone invested in having only ‘good’ representations of black people (‘The Cosby Show!’) in film and TV.”

The article explores the film’s historical predecessors, markedly The Color Purple, and its televisual antithesis, The Cosby Show. Professor and cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal (under whom I researched YouTube, black vloggers and identity) lays out the connection:

A father repeatedly rapes and impregnates his daughter in “The Color Purple” (as does the father in “Precious”), enraging some critics (mostly men) who asserted that the book and the film treated black men harshly. “Precious” has avoided that kind of backlash, but “people are suspicious of narratives that don’t put us in the best light,” Professor Neal said. The roots of that suspicion, he said, can be found in a long history of negative images in popular culture that helped keep black people in their place by reinforcing the notion of their inferiority.

Most black people, the article implies, aren’t wholesale against the movie — except Armond White — but some are still wary of it, especially scholars, because of a long history if demeaning images of black people (minstrelsy, early radio, film and television) and the persistent threat of stereotype.

This strikes me as true. The enormous popularity of the film, especially among black people, signals there’s a demand for these kinds of stories. I’m not sure if it’s about a kind of “authentic” black narrative, or if it stems from a larger narrative of struggle, but whatever the case, the story has resonated in print (Sapphire’s novel Push) and now in film. This is meaningful, and in my opinion not particularly damaging.

My Interview with NPR /WBUR on Black Web Series November 17, 2009

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Click to listen to the program.

Thank you to producer Kevin Sullivan and host Robin Young for granting me a chance to talk about Buppies, black web series and web series in general for their show Here and Now! And thank you to Aaliyah Williams, Buppies producer for doing the show and granting me an interview weeks ago.

Click the photo above or here to listen to the program.

One thing I forgot to mention on-air is that black shows online have a surprising number of gay and lesbian characters, much more so than we see on television and in movies. This is another example about how the ability to produce one’s own narrative leads to greater diversity and possibility (even if doing so is incredibly difficult and arduous).

I apologize that I couldn’t mention particular shows on-air, but there are too many. For a list of shows, click the link above, and for all my web series posts and research, click here.

“Precious” Isn’t the First Naughty Black Film November 16, 2009

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Originally published at Splice Today. My first post about Precious here.

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Precious has arrived! For anyone following the film world, the push for Precious, at first titled Push, began months ago, in the beginning of the year. It has been a long haul. Some of us are tired.

Now it is here and is bound for Oscar greatness, unless you take Armond White seriously. Precious is brilliant and moving, entertaining and important; you should see it, and keep your eyes on Mo’Nique. While there might be some backlash as a result of the Oprah and Tyler Perry hype, I imagine critics will still lavish it with enough praise to carry it to the Academy Awards in fine shape.

Back to Armond White. White, the enfant terrible of film criticism, finds in Precious a kind of bamboozle. White:

“Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy.”

White wants to revise black film history to include lowbrow schlock that nonetheless portrays black people as happy deviants, not real deviants—or something like that. The truth is his argument isn’t very good. His criticism of Precious is old and predictable, even though he masks it under the guise of going against the mainstream.

The truth: Precious is just one film in a long history of black movies that go against “responsible” images of black people. (more…)

Black Television on the Web Gets More Coverage November 15, 2009

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The premiere of Buppies in two weeks seems to have captured a small bit of media attention! I’d like to think my article in The Root, probably the first on the issue, had a little something to do with it, and I’m glad to be researching a topic so fresh. (For my list of black “webisodes” click the black web series page link.)

In the latest piece of news, DeNeen L. Brown, of The Washington Post — a company I hold in high regard, for obvious reasons — did a write up of a few of the new series, mainly Chick, whose creator I’d interviewed before, and Buppies, about which I’ve written for this blog and the Wall Street Journal. Brown does a thorough job talking to various players, including Jonathan Moore of RowdyOrbit, a site which continues to interest those in the media, though I’d like to think I found it first!

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Jonathan Moore of RowdyOrbit

Brown also talks to the NAACP and two professors who write about black media — though not myself! She references previous “web television” or “webisodes” like Lonelygirl15, although there have been many since then, a number of them quite successful. Nonetheless, she does say “web television” has been around since the 1990s, a fact missed by a number of people who write about. I recently did an interview with Scott Zakarin, who created The Spot, which proves this fact.

Essence has also done a write-up on the trend, focusing on Buppies, and Tatyana Ali did the Mo’Nique Show.

In other news, last week I recorded an interview with Buppies‘ Aaliyah Williams about this topic for “Here and Now,” a radio program for Boston’s NPR hosted by Robin Young.  Come back to the blog for updates!

List of Black Web Shows Up November 13, 2009

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The Black Web Series Page

Due to the tremendous response to my last post on black web series, I’ve created a page with a more visually appealing list of shows I hope to update regularly. I’ll start writing descriptions and short reviews of the shows on the page as well, so check back for more information.

If you’re a creator or producer of a show, please let me know and I’ll add you to the list. Also, if you’re show is listed but there is an error, please contact me as well (ajean at asc dot upenn dot edu). Eventually, if certain series are not updated and have only one to four episodes I will have to take them off.

Also, please check my general web series page, which I’ll update with all the information I get about the space.

Thank you, click and explore!

“Chick” Gives Women (and Women of Color) a Story of Freedom, Empowerment November 3, 2009

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"Chick" is debuting on Koldcast and RowdyOrbit.

More than three years into her relationship, Kai Soremekun had a knife before her, her boyfriend’s hand on the handle. The emotional abuse had gone too far, and she needed to get out.

“I had such a low self-worth at that point,” Soremekun told me. “When I finally got out, I spent a lot of time realizing how that happened.”

That process of soul-searching led to several different scripts, most of which were tough-girl narratives stemming more from her anger than from a fully matured artistic sensibility. They were “more a self-healing tool than something I should make,” she said.

Eventually she wrote a story of empowerment with the right tone and plot. The result is Chick, a new web series Soremekun self-financed premiering today on web series network Koldcast.tv and RowdyOrbit, a new site distributing web series by and about people of color.

In the series, Lisa leaves her loser boyfriend to pursue loftier dreams. She hears about a secret academy that trains superheroes, and the story progresses from there. While obviously a narrative of female empowerment, Soremekun does not want to scare off men; she wanted to story to have multiple layers.

Full post at Ronebreak. The first episode of Chick went live today at Koldcast.

More from my interview with creator Kai Soremekun after the jump. (more…)

“Buppies,” Tatyana Ali and the Value of Making a Web Series November 1, 2009

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Tatyana Ali plays Quinci, a socialite and publicist having a really bad day, in "Buppies." The show premieres Nov. 24 on BET.com.

Thanks to Racialicious for reposting this!

For my first post on black web series, including links to shows, click here.

From my Wall Street Journal post:

“Doing a Web series, working in this new medium, you have a little bit more autonomy, an ability to tell the story you want to tell,” Ali told me in an interview.

With a little help from Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, Breece and Ali (and producer Aaliyah Williams) brought their show to BET. The result is “Buppies,” premiering Nov. 24 on BET.com. The show is BET’s first original Web series. It’s not the first Web series to feature a predominately black cast, but with BET’s promotion of the show online and on TV, it is arguably the most high-profile.

“BET was definitely not a part of my plan at all,” says Breece. “But a lot of black people flock to the Web for content. I just feel like it’s the new frontier.”

Full the full post, visit the Wall Street Journal‘s Speakeasy: here.

Some thoughts and more quotes from the interview below.

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For Wanda Sykes, George Lopez, Success Not Guaranteed October 28, 2009

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UPDATE: George Lopez’s show Lopez Tonight also started strong on TBS (and TNT, TruTV), so it looks like we have hit a temporary POC (people of color) late-night trifecta.

UPDATE: The ratings for Wanda Sykes were good; not, SNL good, though.

UPDATE: Fox has the site up, with promos and such.

With the (apparent) success of The Mo’Nique Show, will Wanda Sykes and George Lopez similarly excel in late night, or will they go the way of other recent shows by comedians of color, like David Alan Grier’s short-lived Chocolate News and CNN’s dull DL Hughley Breaks the News? They’ll have to be edgy and interesting: the problem with Grier and Hughley was they were too soft for a post-Chappelle age.

Posted at Ronebreak:

Today networks are reaching back to the days of Arsenio Hall and giving comedians and comediennes of color late night talk shows. While CNN’s D.L. Hughley Breaks the News lived a short life, mostly because it wasn’t very interesting, BET’s The Mo’Nique Show, premiered strongly two weeks ago.

That success is good news for Fox, which is looking to Wanda Sykes to revive their lackluster Saturday nights, giving the popular comic her own talk show premiering November 7 at 11pm, two nights before George Lopez’s new talk show airs on TBS. Ever since coming out a year ago, Wanda Sykes’ star has been on the rise. Sykes has been a mainstay on television for the last few years, ever since her short-lived sitcom in 2003. She has a big presence now, with recurring roles on The New Adventures of Old Christine and Curb Your Enthusiasm. HBO is now broadcasting her newest standup program, I’ma Be Me.

Full post, with embedded video, at Ronebreak.

Mo’Nique, Shilling and What An Oscar Means October 27, 2009

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UPDATE: Mo’Nique has won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, praising the Academy for putting “the performance” over “politics”! Go ahead, girl!

UPDATE: Mo’Nique has addressed the controversy, saying: “Baby, people gonna talk. It comes with the territory. But didn’t they talk about Jesus? Then they killed him. So, what makes me think I’m so special that they’re not gonna talk about me?” [via Bossip]

ORIGINAL: Quick thought: Shadow and Act has a great post about the small controversy around Mo’Nique’s promoting, or rather not promoting, Precious. Mo’Nique, rumors say, has been demanding money for appearances — she has done some, including, apparently, Oprah — and generally snubbing the process of Oscar-schilling. But getting an Oscar nom, S&A points out, takes more than mere merit:

Being a very competitive business it’s not enough to have an Oscar worthy performance. You have to let the voters know that you’re grateful, humbled and most importantly 1) be someone well liked in the business and 2) hustle your ass off the award. You have to campaign for it for months. That’s what Forest Whitaker did for his Oscar for The Last King of Scotland. That guy hustled to get that award schoomzing, going to every lousy Oscar party and reception, glad handing anyone with even the remotest connection to an Oscar voter and practically doing handstands to get that award. (Jennifer Hudson was fortunate enough to have people to guide her to help her do the same thing) And it also helped a lot that Whitaker is extremely well liked in the business, a professional’s professional and considered one of the nicest guys around. In an industry filled with a–holes, that’s something that stands out

This makes sense. Some people I know have argued that Mo’Nique probably doesn’t see an Oscar as very meaningful, and maybe she’s just too busy with her new show. For a plus-size black women who already has a successful career as a comedian, the argument goes, an Academy Award does not mean much.  This may or may not be true. Certainly Oscar noms and wins have not hurt Queen Latifah and Whoopi Goldberg, two of the highest grossing black actresses of all time (based on B.O. grosses). Jennifer Hudson only did Sex and the City and The Secret Life of Bees after her win, but she’s put out an album and weathered a family crisis; besides, I think it’s safe to say she is a singer first, not an actress, and that the Oscar raised her stardom broadly (cover of Vogue much?!).

Most importantly, though, Mo’Nique needs to realize that an Oscar is about more than her career and bank account. It’s about slowly shifting industry standards of what is acceptable, honorable and marketable. It’s about other black girls — with a little extra — who need role models: imagine what it would be like to have both Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique take home awards (presuming they put Mo’Nique in supporting, which they should)?

Of course, having an Oscar in your pocket gives your career extra longevity; producers love slapping “Academy Award winning” before your name. Even if she only wants to do comedy for the rest of her life. It helps her. But more significantly, it helps all black women.

I’m not one to place the burden of representation on any one actress. If Mo’Nique doesn’t want an Oscar and feels she doesn’t need one, that’s her decision. But she should realize it affects more than just her wallet, and it might even affect that too.

Being a very competitive business it’s not enough to have an Oscar worthy performance. You have to let the voters know that you’re grateful, humbled and most importantly 1) be someone well liked in the business and 2) hustle your ass off the award. You have to campaign for it for months. That’s what Forest Whitaker did for his Oscar for The Last King of Scotland. That guy hustled to get that award schoomzing, going to every lousy Oscar party and reception, glad handing anyone with even the remotest connection to an Oscar voter and practically doing handstands to get that award. (Jennifer Hudson was fortunate enough to have people to guide her to help her do the same thing) And it also helped a lot that Whitaker is extremely well liked in the business, a professional’s professional and considered one of the nicest guys around. In an industry filled with a–holes, that’s something that stands out

“Good Hair” Is Shockingly Preachy October 24, 2009

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Chris Rock, whose kids inspired the movie, takes mothers to task for relaxing the hair of young children.

It’s easy to say Good Hair is superficial, putting a shiny gloss on a serious issue — it certainly is fun. There are plenty of appearances from celebrities (no, not Oprah or Michelle; they’re not stupid), and the film’s narrative is centered around the glamorous and ridiculous Bronner Brothers show and convention in Atlanta.

Good Hair is not really for people who aren’t invested in the future and state of black people. Sure, it’s entertaining enough to amuse almost anyone — Chris Rock isn’t rich for nothing. But it’s also entertaining because Good Hair is really talking to the black community, asking in a very stark, even censorious manner why black women spend from hundreds to thousands of dollars to support European aesthetics, businesses mostly owned by white and Asian Americans, and which exploits (perhaps) the poverty and religious practices of India. The appearances by Nia Long, who will forever be loved by black women for her role in Love Jones among other films, and the glitz of the Bronner Brothers is all meant to get black people in theatres. Like all Americans, black Americans don’t see documentaries. This documentary, Rock is saying, is too important to not be a hoot. It’s the Michael Moore philosophy.

Good Hair‘s invective is so subtly acerbic that lovable celebrities like Nia Long and Raven-Symoné seem a little silly for spending so much on their weaves (both probably spend tens of thousands a year). The movie goes after the chemicals used in relaxers, the hours of labor needed to install weaves and the dubious origins of the hair black Americans consume so voraciously. Al Sharpton, in many ways the film’s voice of reason (along with the lovely and talented Tracie Thoms), says in quite biting terms that black people literally “wear their oppression on their heads.”

There are moments when Rock concedes straight hair holds greater cultural and economic capital, and that everyone should be able to choose their hair. But it’s clear where his biases lie. In the end, even I,  somewhat knowledgeable about the politics of black hair despite having grown up in a household of mostly men, was surprised at how many good arguments there were for black women wearing their hair natural.

For that reason, Good Hair, getting a lot of love from critics, isn’t really made for mass consumption — most documentaries aren’t anyway, no matter how entertaining. It’s breezy so it’ll make money, but it’s also a breezily preachy lesson aimed right at the heads of black people.

Good Hair hopefully will start the long but necessary process of changing black (and American) ideals of what constitutes sexy, appropriate and beautiful hair.*

*But if you like your hair straight, by all means, more power to you! Weaves and perms are pretty. Knowing the context of that choice, however, is just as important as having the choice in the first place.

“Precious” and the Fight Against Representation October 20, 2009

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Mo-Nique and Gaboury Sidibe play two very troubled individuals in Precious.

Mo'Nique and Gaboury Sidibe play two very troubled individuals in Precious.

I saw Precious Wednesday (it’s accomplished, bound for Oscar greatness), but I’ll hold off on film criticism and instead talk about what I think the film means, and what I think it does for black cinema, a field I’m still learning about, so I would love comments and suggestions.

My thrust is simple: Precious is another shot in the fight against representation. Yes, “representation.” That big word that still refuses to go away in discussions about culture. Representation is what happens when media — television, film, web, books, music — come to take on cultural meaning. Images come to “represent” various things in society: gender, race, professional positions, etc. Courtney Cox comes to represent older women who desire younger men (Cougar Town); Steve Carell represents the small town businessman (The Office). Everything you see on a screen is a representation. Simple.

What’s wrong? Well, nothing can really represent one thing if it isn’t exactly that thing. Simple again. Not even our politicians can, in an intellectual sense, represent us. They can represent a majority or a plurality, but not all of us. Same with cultural representations. They are always imperfect. Some representations get a pass because they’re “positive,” but getting a complete pass is rare. (It’s still a minority of people who don’t like The Cosby Show, at least until recently. However much it skewed representations of black people, or, as Herman Gray argues in Watching Race, supports a conservative discourse, it’s still a “nice” representation. Most people give it a pass, but not everybody).

I’m getting to Precious, bare with me. (more…)

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